“Fair Linen”

This is the final article in May of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on May 30, 1909, and is an article on laundry and use of linen and table cloths. It is Marion Harland’s opinion that a simple clean cloth is better than a “fine” dirty one.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

“Fair Linen”

ECCLESIASTICAL manuals enjoin that tables and chalices be “covered with a fair cloth.” I am using the word in a housewifely sense; that is, that the “cloth” should be free from spot or blemish and shining clean. It is not, of necessity, “fine linen,” such as takes before it, in the mind of the Bible reader, the “purple,” descriptive of Dives’ ungodly pomp.

I heard a true story the other day of a colored preacher’s version of the celebrated parable. According to him, the rich man “fared presumptuously every day.”

I have use for this malapropism here and now. The housemother who insists that her fair linen must also be fine must have a deep purse and keep it well filled, or she may be said to “fare presumptuously” in the century of advanced and sustained prices. Muslin and linen of medium quality, glossy from the smoothing iron and folded evenly when not on duty, are “fairer” than cloths of a finer mesh that are badly laundered and laid carelessly on the shelf. This is especially true with tablecloths that are awkwardly dealt with. I have in my mind’s eye a certain household, often seen in my youth, where the tablecloths were always wrinkled and tumbled.

“Miss Leslie says we must not use the word ‘mussed,’” observed a neat neighbor, quoting from her cook book, “but nothing else will describe Sarah’s tablecloths.”

A Careless Footman.

I wondered, in my inexperience, why this was true, until I bethought myself to watch the footman as he cleared the table after meals. He seized the damask cloth (always fine) in the middle, shook the crumbs out of door or window and “humped” it upon a chair or sideboard until he was ready to double it up loosely and tuck it into a drawer, where lay a dozen others, some smooth and clean, and beside them those condemned to the washtub. I formed the opinion then which I maintain up to this present writing, namely, that there is but one right way of removing a cloth from the table.

Imprimis, it should never be shaken out of the door or window. The crumbs should be removed with a folded napkin. A “scraper” of metal, be it sterling or plated, abrades the surface in time. The crumb brush, however soft, is seldom perfectly clean. In taking up the crumbs it sheds dust. The folded napkin neither scratches nor smirches. The crumbs removed, the damask must be folded in the original creases left by the iron and put away where it has room to lie out straight. Some canny housewives have a separate drawer for the cloth in use, and lay a heavy board upon it when therein bestowed. If I dwell somewhat at length upon this essential to “fair linen,” it is for economy’s sake as well as because a smooth cloth is more pleasing to the eye than one that is tumbled—“mussed,” as my old friend put it.

Glazed like Paper.

Table linen which has been treated to a bath of raw starch water and, while yet damp, ironed until the surface has the glaze of calendered writing paper, keeps clean twice as long as that which is tumbled and shaken rudely, and looks well to the last day. From another notable housemother I learned that a chance grease spot may be masked in the latter hour of active service by rubbing chalk into it before folding. By the next time of using, particularly if the application be made overnight, the alkali has eaten up the grease. The chalking makes the laundress’ task easier, also.

Napkins must not be “Starched,” in the technical sense of the term, although they take a finer gloss if dipped into the thinnest of starch water, rolled up hard, beaten lustily with the fist to insure evenness of distribution, then ironed until the requisite degree of polish is produced. They look “fairer” and will resist dirt far better than limp napkins. For be it remembered at each stage of laundering and using, that dust is dirt and that dust is everywhere. It flies off from the glossy linen; it adheres to the rough-dry.

The like rules obtain in the management of muslin sheets and pillowslips. It is a luxury to sleep in linen or in cambric sheets. A linen pillowcase is almost a necessity to healthful slumbers on summer nights. It is a “must-be” to the fevered invalid. Yet there are tens of thousands of well conducted homes in this country where the linen sheet is practically unknown and in which a few linen pillowslips are kept religiously for the sick-room. The next best thing to the cool deliciousness of the flaxen web is a cotton sheet, so smooth that it feels (almost) as good as linen and is as comely to behold.

Two correspondents have written to us of the saving of the housemother’s time and of the superior healthfulness of rough-dry sheets. One represents that the pressure of the iron, forcing the flattened threads closely together, prevents ventilation and retains the insensible perspiration that should not be left to clog the pores. Without entering into a controversy that would leave each disputant the more strongly attached to her own dogma, I may remark that is avails little for the exudations to filter through the sheet if they be then and there arrested by blanket and counterpane.

Almost Like a Dream.

Haven’t I told once here of the fond desire of my childish dreams to be a queen, and only because I was sure that she slept every night in clean linen sheets, a change for every day in the year? The fancy was recalled to me by reading, after the death of the late Queen of England, that she indulged in the luxury I had coveted, and that she was fastidious with regard to the absolute smoothness of the sheets. Two maids—so ran the tale—spent two hours daily in clipping the threads that fastened the sheet to the mattress the day before, and in stitching the fresh lower sheet in place. Not a wrinkle must mar the fair expanse of fine linen. I give the modern edition of the crumpled roseleaf story for what it may be worth. It is the more credible because every one of u would have her bed changed nightly if she could afford it. Apart from the first outlay for material, there would be the laundry bills-a bagatelle to queen and multi-millionaire, but a mountain-high impediment to the fulfilment of our desire.

With the approach of warm weather the craving for fair bed and body linen grows upon us. We read with thought that approximates pain the injunctions of the theorists who write practical housewifely articles for a woman’s page and for “Clever Cookery” and “Dorothea’s Domestic Diary” upon the danger and disgrace of changing body linen but twice per week, and bed linen but once. “My clothes abhor me!” complained poor, tortured Job. We reverse the order and hate our clothes when we lay them off at the close of the longest days upon the calendar. Sunday and Thursday mornings are the happiest days of the seven.

To Economize.

Let us reason together on this point. I know, for I, too, have heard them discourse. How it stings the self-respect of the woman who must consider laundry bills, or overrun her income continually, to hearken to the dainty, disdainful prattle of women who “cannot conceive how one can reconcile it to one’s sense of decency, not to mention health, to wear a change of underclothes more than one day at a time after June 1!” One of them habitually refers to underwear as “internal garments” in my hearing, and evidently prides herself upon the delicate and ingenious phrase.

And, indeed, why should not we imitate their custom while we ridicule their speech? Upon removing body linen at night, hang each article separately where the air will visit it freely all of that night and for 24 hours thereafter. Keep two sets on hand and in alternate use. If they hang in an airy place during the off day they will be sweet and, to all intent and purposes, clean when you put them on.

Strip the bed upon rising and hang the sheets in the wind. Take off the pillowslips, and when the pillows have been aired for an hour or more, cover then with cases kept for the day, and on which you never sleep. Let the night set air with the sheets. Turn, beat, and throw the mattress across the foot rail of the bed, where the air can get at all sides of it, and let it remain thus for several hours.

By following these precautions against stuffiness you will be as neat of body, if not as complacent of spirit, as the penny-a-liners who dictate and the ultra-fastidious few who assume to practice what the former preach.

With all my heart I love “fair linen!” But I love yet more fairness and consistency I will not preach to the woman of moderate means and six children of the insanitary “indecency” of not enduring each of the half dozen in clean clothes “from the skin out” every day in the week. I am stupid at mathematics, but I have the multiplication table tolerably well in hand, and it requires no ready reckoner to make up the laundry list of that household, allowing three “internal garments” per diem (exclusive of seven pairs of stocking a week) for each child. And the parents must not be a whit less “decent” than their offspring!

Take a paper and pencil and work out the sum for yourself, and let me know by return mail in how many households in your town or village such a “Wash” would be tolerated. Don’t’ forget to add seven pairs of sheets for each bed, pillowcases to match, and that no “self-respectable mistress of a family ever allows the same napkin to appear twice on her table without being washed.”

Nonsense, is it? Then why give ear or thought to it?

Make your linen “fair in the beginning, change it as often as you can afford to review it and keep it well aired between times.

My old colored “mammy” was oracular, and never unwise. One of her familiar sayings was: “If yo’ ken’t do as well as you wan’ to do, why jes’ do de bes’ you ken!”

Marion Harland

Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

The Linens Which Should Fill the Linen Closet

This is the second article in March of the School for Housewives 1905 series published on Mar 12, 1905, and is a longer article with advice to housewives on what types of linens they should keep in their homes.

School for Housewives – The Linens Which Should Fill the Linen Closet

Household Supplies Which Make the Latter-Day Housewife’s Lot a Happy One

From force of habit I had nearly written “Linen closet.” If your house is a suburban cottage, I hope you can boast of such a linen pantry as is my delight for seven months of the year. A tiny room, but large enough to allow one the privilege of turning freely from side to side when the door is closed. It is lighted by a window, through which the sunshine pours all day. Summer airs enter freely to sweeten piles of clean, smooth sheets, pillow cases, counterpanes, towels, and such “things” as a prospective bride, whose letter I published last week, writes she would fain be making up in the hours that would otherwise hang heavy upon her hands.


If you are a flat-dweller, you content yourself with shelves, and in nine cases out of ten conceal their contents by a literary looking curtain. Other flat-dwellers are not deceived by the plausibly drapery. Most of them, if pressed to candor, would confess to as much and as lively interest in what they know – and you know that they know – is arranged “in beauteous order” upon the veiled shelves, as they would feel in rows of library bindings or artistically shabby “first editions.”

But to our linens-technically so-called. The fact that half of them are cotton does not modify the term. In our grandmother’s day the sheets used by gentlefolk were always linen. Two summers ago, on two hot June nights spent in a Colonial homestead in Delaware, I slept between linen cambric sheets eighty years old, trimmed with real lace, and sheer and fine as my best pocket handkerchief.

If you can afford it, have a few pairs of linen sheets. Our bride that is to be asked me for a list of “the commoner” housewifely properties requisite for her outfit. Let her watch the advertisements of linen sales in reputable department stores, and buy enough for a pair or two at a time, then make them up herself. She says she has abundance of time, and is eager for employment. Cut each sheet three yards long. Long sheets last far better than short. Stretching and straining and tight tucking in at head and foot in time wear the fabric, not to mention the discomfort of sheets that cannot be coaxed to cover one’s shoulders without uncovering one’s feet. Have a hem of equal width at top and bottom. That is another economical device, since they can be turned upside down at will, and made to wear evenly throughout. I do not advise hemstitched sheets to those who buy linen but seldom and wish to keep it long. The threads in the drawn work break sooner than in the plain hem. Hem by hand, rather than on the machine. The hem is neater and more durable. The machine needle cuts the threads the hand needle goes between them. Make your handsewed sheets elegant by embroidering your initials in one corner.

You must have cotton sheets for winter and for daily use. It is far cheaper to buy them in the piece than to get them ready made in the shops. Select what is known as a “close weave.” That is, an even thread of gold texture. Too little attention is given to this by purchasing housewives. Uneven weaving – where coarse threads break the web into roughness – injures the durability of the fabric. Heavy sheeting wears no better than one lighter in weight and finer in quality; is no more comfortable in winter, and the finer quality is incomparably pleasanter for the rest of the year.

Linen pillow-slips are more luxurious and more wholesome the year round. One who is accustomed to them find cotton heating to the cheeks and head. Buy the linen by the yard and hem or hemstitch them by hand. Here, again, the touch of daintiness is imparted by embroidered letter or initials or monogram.


Hem table cloths and napkins by hand always. It is cheaper here, also, to buy by the yard, but far less elegant. Except for the kitchen, buy “the set,” that is, tablecloth and napkins, woven in a pattern running all around the square or oblong. Breakfast and luncheon cloths and dollies “come” fringed on the four sides, from time to time, fashions varying in this respect as in others. “Whip” the raw edges where the fringe is joined to the linen to prevent raveling. Four long tablecloths for dinner, and three breakfast cloths, with napkins to match each, would be a fair beginning for two people. I take it for granted you have a fair supply of tray-cloths and center pieces for the table linens, together with luncheon squares. If you work initials upon napkins, set them in one corner, if upon tablecloths, near the outer edge of the central design, and in two places diagonally opposite to one another. They give a “style” to a damask nothing else imparts.

Be liberal in the matter of towels. Good housewives will tell you that “you cannot have too many.” If you do not mind work – and you intimate that you do not – get a good quality of wide huckaback and plain damask by the yard, cut into generous lengths; lay wide hems and hem stitch them neatly. Then work a small initial about four inches above the hem on one end. At a cost of 50 cents each you will thus secure towels you could not buy for $1 apiece.

You can buy chamoisine for dusters also by the yard. They are admirable in their way and not expensive. Yet many prefer cheesecloth for this purpose. They take up the dust readily, may be washed again and again, and last well. Stitch the hems with turkey red cotton, and outline a big “D” in the middle with the same, as a precaution against the misuse of them for dishcloths and floorwipers. The red is a flag of warning.

Carry the same principle of generous provision into the purchase of dish-towels. Have three qualities – one very stout for pots and kettles, a medium-weight for china, very fine for glass and silver. Hem and mark each kind with red cotton “K” for kitchen use, “C” for china, “G” for glass, and be conscientious in holding each to its work. Hem squares of the different qualities for dishcloths.

For facecloths for chambers and bathroom buy white Turkish toweling, cut into squares and hem with stout cotton very securely, as they will ravel with the using.

Next week’s “Talk” will be upon “Kitchen Plenishing.”

Marion Harland

The Extra Linens
Household Talks with Members of the Housewives’ Council
Recipes Contributed by Readers
Setting the Table for a St. Patrick’s Day Dinner